The Strategist was working in the library, enjoying the quiet and the dry warmth of the afternoon sun pouring though the high windows. The heavy leather-bound volumes on his desk were half-covered with rolls of parchment and, without being prompted, Paruteen kept on bringing him more of everything, almost preternaturally fast on his feet. Sometimes he wondered if the librarian was a mind reader, ready with answers even before one knew what the right question was – and the right question, of course, was about the right books. Personally, the Strategist could find no fault with this logic, and Paruteen’s efficiency made his working hours here so much more productive.
“Jasmine, oh thank the gods you’re here. I need some normal human beings to talk to – and in the moment of dire need you have to count too, right? - otherwise my headache will never stop.”
Jasmine – and there was no escape from the name when Lante was around - groaned and looked up from travel journals of a Fenfield merchant to see the captain of the King’s Guard stumble into the library, hiding his face behind his hands in an expression of distress very much befitting his status.
“Did you have a sunstroke chilling at the knights’ practice? If you have no business here, go away, Lante. Unlike you, other people actually have jobs to do.”
Paruteen peeked out from behind a pile of books he was carrying – probably to see if he could fetch some folios fitting the occasion. Sadly, it seemed that the only thing Lante was after was disturbing the public peace, so the librarian vanished between the shelves again.
Lante dropped into a chair in a rustle of his ceremonial robes – crisply white and untarnished except for what looked like a few stray pastry crumbs – and lay his head on the table. Despite his initial threat, no stream of complaints followed, as Lante just continued to stare emptily into space, eyes glazed over in an expression of someone who got served more than he bargained for.
“What is it?”
Lante just groaned helplessly and turned his head facedown into the desk.
“Oh, beaten at your own game, aren’t you?” he cooed. “What did our charming friend do this time? What amazing social graces did he impress you with?”
Lante raised his head just to scowl at him.
“He talked about romance,” he said gravely, and Jasmine had to laugh in his face.
“Romance? What, did he find a lady after his own heart, and asked you for romantic advice?” The mental image of any poor girl being confronted with Angel’s courting, which was probably as subtle as a moderately sized stone wall, did have a certain kind of charm, but didn’t stop Jasmine from laughing, either.
“Worse. He wanted to talk about my love life,” Lante said grimly, and pointed an accusing finger at Jasmine’s face. “And I know just who to thank for that, too, so don’t you dare gloat in my face!”
“Aww you fragile thing, when has a little bit of gossip ever even ruffled your hair,” Jasmine waved off the finger away from his face. “I would have paid dearly to see how that conversation went.”
Lante let out a loud exasperated sigh that came out suspiciously like a groan, pulled himself straight in the chair, and stared at Jasmine with big, accusing eyes.
“You knew and never thought of doing anything about it?” he said, voice ringing with disapproving self-righteousness in an entertaining, if unconvincing, imitation of Angel’s straightforward bluntness. “To be liked by someone is a noble thing, there is no need to conceal it.”
Jasmine laughed until his vision was blurry with tears of mirth and there was fog on his glasses, and kept on laughing until Paruteen materialized with a jug of water in his hand held steady over Jasmine’s head, ready to enforce peace in the library.
“He is the most amazing person,” Lante said, shaking his head helplessly. “Sometimes you think there is no one more guileless and easy to understand than Angel, and then he goes and-“ he tugged at his hair, for once at a loss for words, and Jasmine felt very pleased with himself and his collateral accomplishments.
“Well, that’s Tenshi-dono for you,” he said, and patted Lante on the shoulder. “Speaking of the, erm, Angel, he wanted to drop by here later to discuss some council matters with me. So unless you’re up for more exercises in diplomacy, you might want to scra- do nothing somewhere else.”
Lante was gone in a whiff of flowery perfume and white silk before Jasmine was even done speaking.
“Should I have offered him a book on curing migraines, perhaps?” Paruteen’s voice came from behind the most recent book stack at Jasmine’s table.
“I’m sure it’s nothing a light stroll won’t cure,” said Jasmine. His generosity only went so far, after all. And there wasn’t that much of it in the first place, Jasmine admitted to himself as a brilliant idea occurred to him. Not much at all.
* * *
Legna walked into the library on the agreed hour, his head heavy with thoughts. It wasn’t a novel feeling, not since the Oracle’s warning came, and his world suddenly grew much larger than it used to be. Listening to the Sage’s cryptic remarks, hearing people’s tales, talking to strangers he had barely exchanged two words with before – all of it made his head buzz with new information. He was told annoyingly often that he had no imagination, but now he felt like his world was slowly expanding, its walls giving in under the swarms of words, and Legna couldn’t get rid of the feeling that Lante, both familiar and strange, was in the middle of it.
“Good afternoon, Tenshi-dono.” Jasmine’s greeting distracted Legna from his thoughts. “Why such a long face? Matters of state already weighing you down?”
“No, that’s not it – I have prepared notes on subjects that will be on the next council meeting, I have them with me. I was thinking about Lante.”
“How most unusual,” Jasmine said with a smile that Legna couldn’t quite understand. After all, he wasn’t saying anything funny.
“No, not really,” he answered with a frown. “I just don’t understand how he can be so easy about difficult things and yet avoid talking about more understandable matters.”
“Do you have anything specific in mind, Angel?” Jasmine said with visible sympathy. “Is it perhaps related to our earlier conversation about Rita Rina and her feelings for Lante?”
“Yes, actually,” said Legna, thankful for Jasmine’s helpfulness. “I don’t understand why he acts like it’s an unpleasant subject.”
“That’s a very peculiar way to put it. I’d even say insightful, Angel.”
“What do you mean insightful?” Why was everything about Lante so puzzling?
“Which reasons do you think can make a person run away from the affections of another?” asked Jasmine sorrowfully. “Think, Angel.”
Legna thought hard, again, about Lante.
“What people won’t welcome love confessions?”
“People who already have lovers,” Jasmine said, apparently having given up hope of getting an answer from Legna.
“It can’t be!” Legna felt his heartbeat speed up in surprise. His first impulse was to say ‘Not Lante!’, but he brushed it off almost immediately, because that made no sense. Lante was a person one would be attracted to before they knew it, so this surely couldn’t be the right reaction. “But who is it?”
Jasmine bent closer to him and whispered one word.
Legna’s notes nearly fell from his suddenly weak hands.
“Impossible!” he said, astonished beyond words. “But what- how- but they are related-“
“Love is a noble thing,” Jasmine shrugged, sitting back in his chair. “Who are we to judge what form it comes in?”
Legna frowned, trying to wrap his mind around this notion, but his mind refused to comply. Did it mean that the siblings were the Lovers? Wait, but didn’t the Sage tell him not to take things too literally? But how else could he possibly take it?
“I-I think I need to go get some fresh air,” Legna said, rubbing his forehead. “I’ll leave my notes with you. If they aren’t clear enough, let’s discuss them later.”
With that, he bid his goodbyes to Jasmine and walked outside, hoping to find some peace of mind in the familiar routes around the castle.
* * *
He must have been walking at a rather fast pace, because before he knew it, Legna found himself at the royal training grounds. He felt a pang of irritation at the discovery – it wasn’t enough that Lante occupied all his thoughts with his incomprehensible riddles, now he controlled Legna’s feet as well. The castle grounds were large enough that one could walk around them for hours without having to retrace their steps, and there was really no reason to have come here.
Legna turned to leave and was almost back on the walking path he had in mind when a familiar voice coming from one of the barracks stopped him in his tracks.
It was an all-too-familiar voice, because it belonged to Lante, who almost constantly chattered like a morning bird. Except this time was different – Legna thought he would have felt compelled to listen if only for the strikingly quiet, serious tone of Lante’s voice.
“Does it hurt? Let me see. Don’t shrug it off, let me.”
There was no response that Legna could hear, but that didn’t seem to bother Lante.
“What were you thinking, getting into a fight without your sword? You may be the strongest, but you are not invincible.”
Legna heard the sound of fabrics being torn – bandages, probably.
“I’m sorry, Lante.”
Legna felt his breath hitch, even though he had guessed earlier who the other speaker would be.
“I’m sorry,” Dante repeated. “Are you hurt?”
“Your pain is my pain,” Lante said, no trace of a joke in his voice. “You know it. But you don’t need to worry about me. I have you. Nothing has as much as touched me since we’ve been here together.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
“Always. I know.”
There was silence for a while, unbroken even by the rustling of fabric. Legna felt his cheeks burn, probably because of the guilt for eavesdropping catching up with him. He picked up the ends of his coat and tiptoed away from the building as quietly as possible.
It was true, then, Legna thought as he wandered towards the outer castle wall. Jasmine was right again, and considering what Legna had just heard with his own ears there was not a single reason to doubt it. The idea that a forbidden love joined Lante and Dante was still hard to grasp, but now it filled Legna’s heart with aching sadness. Of course, Lante would be used to hiding his true feelings, if he always had to carry such a heavy secret in his heart.
“You should watch where you’re going, Oracle.”
Legna looked up, startled, into Rita Rina’s face. Legna should probably be more annoyed with the fact that he was too caught up in thinking about Lante to register where he was going once again, but he was seriously distraught at the moment.
“Excuse me, I didn’t mean to run into you,” he said.
“It’s fine! It just looked like you might run into a wall if you weren’t careful,” she said with a smile.
“I’m not that inattentive,” Legna said. “I was just thinking about Lante.”
A blush crept on Rita Rina’s face, and she looked uncomfortable. Legna immediately felt bad about bringing up the subject and tried to remedy his thoughtlessness.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. It must be hard for you, being the party in an unrequited love. My condolences about being caught up between the star-crossed lovers.”
“Star-crossed lovers?” she gasped, wide-eyed.
“I understand, you don’t have to tell me anything,” he said seriously. “Your secret is safe with me, yours, Lante’s and Dante’s.”
Legna was confused and disappointed when his earnest reassurances seemingly failed to put her at ease, because with a wounded cry, Rita Rina hastily excused herself and marched off.
After some thinking, Legna decided to attribute the outburst to the emotional turbulence of tragic, unrequited love, which therefore should be excused from rationality. Somehow, he thought, it was very easy to feel sorry for Rita Rina.
* * *
Legna was so troubled by his newfound revelation that he didn’t risk the Aruosumente ritual that night. He decided to take some more time to think over the possible implications that the Lovers card represented the twins, because it rendered his previous assumptions useless and sent his mind into confusion.
Even the Aruosumente trial aside, Legna felt the situation called for more from him. No matter how he looked at it, Lante was his friend, and friends supported each other in times of distress. But Legna realized that the delicacy of this situation probably required better knowledge of the matters of the heart than he possessed. With a sigh, he thought that if Lante was in his shoes, he would have definitely known what to do.
After a night of uneasy sleep that yielded no answers, Legna decided to seek counsel. Since it wasn’t something he could ask Lante about, or read books on, he decided to approach a person who could be trusted to give him a straight answer.
“What is it this time?” Moeran’s unimpressed face greeted him shortly after Legna knocked on his door. Legna wasn’t discouraged by the reception; if anything, he was reassured by Moeran’s straightforwardness. It was so much more understandable than any half-truths.
“I’m sorry to be taking your time, but I thought you might help me again. I really appreciate your willingness to tell me things as they are, without sugarcoating your words,” Legna didn’t beat around the bush.
“As usual, you make it really hard to refuse you,” Moeran sighed, opening the door wider, and Legna made his way into the room.
After they were seated down with cups of warm spiced tea – which Legna was growing really fond of – he brought up the subject that was troubling him.
“If you wanted to support someone in a situation that bears no relation to you, and is quite removed from your area of competence, what should you do?”
Moeran looked at him with an unchanged expression. Legna took it as a good sign that Moeran wasn’t as befuddled by the situation as he was.
“If it was someone other than you, Oracle, I’d have suggested conversation.”
“A conversation?” Legna zoomed in on the important part.
“That’s how people usually express support in situations that are out of their control. They offer to listen to other people’s problems. Knowledge that someone understands their situation in itself can help alleviate the stress. I also recommend passion flower and lavender teas, they are very soothing for the nerves.”
Legna sat back, contemplating the answer he received. He supposed he wasn’t very good with soothing conversations – it seemed to be one of those things that Lante knew the secret recipe for – but he felt his obligation as a friend called him to try harder.
Having made up his mind, Legna decisively put down his tea cup and stood up.
“Thank you, Moeran,” he said. “Once again, your words have helped me see things more clearly.”
For some reason, that brought a mildly alarmed expression to Moeran’s face.
“But I haven’t even-“ he stopped mid-sentence to shake his head and rub at his temples. “Who was that about, at least?”
“Lante,” said Legna, heading for the door.
A long sigh was his answer, so Legna said his thanks and turned to leave.
“At least consider the herbal tea,” Moeran’s words caught him in the back. “Don’t overdo the lavender, though. It can give you stomach pains.”
* * *
Full of determination to offer support to his friend, Legna went off on to find Lante. It was nearing mid-day, the sun was high over the towers of the castle, and Legna thought he might find Lante among the knights, taking a mid-day snack and staying well out of the way of the armed sparring sessions.
However, to his great surprise Legna didn’t see the familiar figure anywhere on the training grounds – not a glimpse of flowers over white silks, not an echo of his laughter. Disheartened, Legna considered asking Rita Rina about Lante’s whereabouts, but after the last meeting with her he wasn’t sure if she would respond to his questions rationally.
Just as he was about to start looking for Lante somewhere else, Legna’s eye caught a figure clad all in black, radiating alienness and detached hostility. For the first time it occurred to Legna that Dante’s build and features were every bit the same as Lante’s. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – rationally, of course he had known they were twins - but the difference in their demeanor was so great that it had somehow eclipsed the fact in Legna’s mind.
Legna felt sudden agitation at this discovery that he couldn’t quite explain. In his mind’s eye, the twins were suddenly joined together with strings of fate into one being of shadows and sunlight, and this image filled his heart with a heavy worry. Was it, perhaps, an Oracle premonition? Or was it a sign that Legna lacked the courage to take on such an uneasy challenge and do the right thing?
Legna took a deep breath and forced himself to take a step forward. If he had the strength and determination to attempt Aruosumente, surely being supportive to his friends wasn’t outside his powers, either. With another step, Legna argued with himself that even though Dante wasn’t, strictly speaking, his friend, he was Lante’s very important person and therefore also in need of Legna’s support. This thought was very reassuring, so Legna cast his doubts aside and came over to Dante, stopping just a step away from him.
“I want you to know that if you ever feel lonely, you can talk to me,” he offered to Dante’s back.
Whatever Legna expected of this conversation, it didn’t involve being completely ignored by Dante. After a pause, he tried again.
“I mean, about you and Lante. I’m not sure I can be of any other use to either of you on this delicate subject, but I want you to know I understand.”
Slowly, like an animal shaking off its midday slumber, Dante turned to him.
“Oracle,” he said, narrowing his eyes, and Legna felt chills break down his spine and adjusted his robes. Was the day getting windy?
“I mean it, you can talk to me, if you think I can help,” Legna repeated, looking straight in Dante’s face.
“You can help,” said Dante with a slight rasp to his voice and stretched his hand put in Legna’s direction. Not comprehending, Legna followed the movement until he felt the hand grab his collar and effortlessly lift him off his feet.
“What? How?” He was very confused, and it wasn’t a very comfortable talking position. His collar was digging into his throat, and some of his hair got caught in Dante’s grasp, and Legna had no idea where this was going.
“I will show you how,” breathed out Dante and raised his second hand to Legna’s throat. The contact with the rough skin on his palm made Legna think this whole situation resembled an act of asphyxiation, and he wondered what he should do next. Dante seemed to get increasingly agitated, and Legna felt terribly incompetent and very much out of his depth.
They both heard the cry at the same time, and Legna felt Dante’s grip on him weaken immediately. In a second his feet were firmly back on the ground again, and Legna attributed the weakness in his knees to the consequences of having been suspended mid-air by his collar. Before he fully regained his footing, Lante reached them, noticeably exhausted by his sprint, and put himself between Legna and his brother.
“Dante, please. We’ve talked about this.” Lante’s voice was halting, but his tone was firm and serious.
Dante blinked slowly, almost sleepily.
“Dante, please. Don’t. Let me deal with this,” Lante said in a tone that was very close to a plea, and Legna felt his heart tighten.
Dante nodded, all energy seemingly gone from his limbs, and walked away.
Lante sighed with obvious relief. But before Legna could say anything to him, Lante turned to face him and started furiously shaking him by the shoulder.
“What do you think you were doing, getting Dante angry like that? What were you even talking about?” Lante wailed practically into Legna’s face. Unsettled by the proximity, Legna felt his face heat up and took a step backwards.
“It was probably my mistake,” admitted Legna. “I’m not very good at cheering people up.”
“Cheering up?” Astonishment made Lante’s face lose its usual air of complacence, adding a little to the resemblance to his brother, and Legna felt uneasy again. “What possessed you to come up with that to Dante of all people? I saw Moeran on my way here, and he warned me you might be looking for me, so what was that with Dante?”
“Well, I asked Moeran how I could be helpful to you, even though your situation seems pretty tragic, with the forbidden love between you and Dante, but I wanted to be a good friend- “ Legna trailed off, seeing how Lante’s eyes grew as large as little saucepans.
“Forbidden love. I see.” Lante said weakly after a prolonged silence.
“Yes,” confirmed Legna. “Jasmine told me. I understand.”
“Jasmine told you,” Lante repeated flatly. “You understand.”
This pattern of conversation wasn’t very typical of Lante.
“Why are you repeating my sentences? Am I saying something wrong?” Legna asked with a frown.
With a strangled sound that wasn’t very much like his usual laughter, Lante hid his face behind his hands.
“Are you alright?” Legna asked in concern. He found Lante’s reaction somewhat worrisome.
“Oh yes, I am perfectly alright,” Lante replied with sudden forcefulness, taking his hands away from his face. “Unlike a certain someone I could mention.”
Judging by the fact that Lante glared at the approximate direction of the library and not at the person in front of him, Legna assumed he must have meant Jasmine.
“Was Jasmine wrong, then?” Legna asked, discovering with a surprise that he was very invested in the answer. Must be Lante’s mysterious effect on people again, he thought as his heart thumped heavily in his chest.
“You could say that, yes,” Lante said, enunciating every syllable. “Or rather, he will say so to you himself, the next time you talk.”
With that, Lante set off in the direction of the library, looking that moment every bit as capable of acts of violence as any soldier in His Majesty’s service.
Relief flooded Legna’s body and he felt the need to sit down for a bit. On weak legs, he headed towards the nearest shade, thinking that matters of the heart were probably as exhausting as Oracle’s prophecies, if not more – he felt just as drained with the effort of keeping up with them as he did after the Sage’s riddles.
Legna sighed with contentment. The world was a much better place when he didn’t have to deal with Lante’s forbidden love.